Michael Shannon is terse and compelling as Brad McCullum, whose snap decision to murder his domineering mother with a samurai sword kickstarts a two-strand plot, one following hardbitten cop Willem Dafoe’s increasingly public attempts to draw Brad out of his hiding place in the family home, the other flashing back, through the memories of girlfriend Chloë Sevigny and drama teacher Udo Kier, to track Brad’s descent into madness.
Herzog has described ‘My Son, My Son…’ as a horror movie but that doesn’t go nearly far enough: it’s also a hostage drama, a psychological study, a sly pastiche and a grim but often very funny black comedy. It’s rare to see a film where a director’s true intentions are so effectively masked: for the most part, the picture is played disarmingly straight but,
as is often the case in Herzog’s and especially Lynch’s work, the sheer strangeness on show often threatens to tip things over into black comedy.
The most appropriate comparison might be with Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, another film which remains brilliantly unsettling while still managing to have a bit of fun with the horror genre. But some of the same flaws apply here, too: both films can feel like cynical exercises in audience manipulation rather than genuine works of art and both sometimes feel forced in their commitment to audience-baiting weirdness. In both films, too, the main character seems completely berserk when we first meet him, so any attempts at exploring the psychology of insanity feel somewhat unsatisfying.
‘My Son, My Son…’ may be a minor work in the Herzog canon but it’s still one of the more fascinating, frustrating, disturbing and beautiful experiences available to cinemagoers this year.